I have been writing to a man who went to the school I attended my first two years of college. I didn’t know him then—1957-1959—and we haven’t written in the intervening years. Then, about a week ago, he found my page in a leaflet for our fiftieth class reunion. On my page, in that slot where they ask you what you are doing now, I had said, “I am writing gay novels” and gave the URL for my website. He’s gay, so he wrote, and I was glad he did. The school was in Tennessee, on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau.
We’ve been asking each other questions, What’re you doing now? He’s a college professor. What was school like for you? He had plenty of gay sex, I had none. I left after two years and went into the Army, he stayed for four. We asked each other what our lives would have been like if he had left after two years and I had stayed for four. We approached the questions, Why did I leave and you stay? It is surprising that such a small school (1300 students) could have given two students such radically different experiences.
The given, which doesn’t have to be talked about much, is how homophobic that world was in 1959. The question that I raised with him was this: Would my teachers have been supportive and nurturing even if I told them I was gay in 1959? Or would they have expelled me from the university, there on the edge of the Cumberland Plateau? Would something worse have happened? Something violent? The stakes were high in 1959, and those were dangerous times, and it is hard now to reconstruct exactly what we were aware of and what we were feeling at that school.
The effort at reconstruction is necessary. It helps my friend and me build a friendship. It helps us determine why we did what we did in 1959. It helps us to understand how we ended up in such different places. Understanding ourselves enables friendship. But it’s bigger than that. Accumulating the facts about our gay past enables us to understand our communal present. The effort to recover the gay past has as its goal a new Descent of Man.